Growing Outdoors

For kids, the natural world can be a place of peace, health and inspiration—and can launch a lifetime passion for conservation.

  • Richard Louv
  • Conservation
  • Sep 23, 2020

Wonder, delight, whimsy and discovery animate the faces of children exploring nature, whether by building a fairy house (top left) or rescuing a turtle from the road (bottom right). Even inspecting a few wildflowers (below) can yield quiet joy. (Above photos clockwise from top left: Leslie Alvis, The Jehoul Family, Mackenzie Rohrbaugh/Wild Sage Photo Co., Nichole Holze, Nakiesha D. Bridgers, Nakiesha D. Bridgers, Nakiesha D. Bridgers, Elizabeth Blank)

ON A WARM SUMMER AFTERNOON in Atascadero, California, Kathleen Lockyer and her seven-year-old daughter were in their backyard next to the Salinas River. The child was pounding an acorn with a stone when she suddenly looked up, seeming alarmed.

“Mama! What’s he saying?” she asked.

Lockyer’s stomach fluttered. Was someone watching them? Was her daughter hearing imaginary voices?

“Who are you hearing?" asked Lockyer, feeling uneasy.

Child (female) plays with wildflowers at the Reflection Riding Nature Center summer camp

“Him, that guy. Listen!” her daughter said. Baffled at her mom’s cluelessness, the little girl stood up and pointed toward the front yard. “That bird. So what’s he saying???”

Lockyer turned and heard the sharp metronomelike cheep-cheep-cheep alarm call of a bird. Her daughter, hearing it first, had been intuitively captivated—and curious. This backyard moment underscored what Lockyer, an occupational therapist, already knew: Connection to nature can be a doorway into a wider, deeper and even healing world—if we pay attention.

Increasingly, psychologists, health professionals, urban planners and others are, in fact, paying attention and incorporating the power of nature into their practices. Washington, D.C.-based pediatrician Robert Zarr, for example, founded Park Rx America, now a network of some 820 healthcare professionals from around the world who literally write prescriptions for nature. They’ll tell patients to “plant a garden,” “take a hike” or unplug from electronics and just “notice what’s in motion” outside. They’ve even created a database of parks or trails for outdoor opportunities in patients’ own neighborhoods.

Similarly, pediatrician Stephen Pont in Austin, Texas, prescribes nature as a “stealth health” intervention. In nature, children “can engage in health-improving activities without even realizing it,” he says. “Give kids a healthy snack and time outdoors in nature and many medical problems can be prevented or improved.” These problems range from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder to Vitamin D deficiency to cardiovascular and mood disorders. And though nature isn’t a panacea for everything that ails us, it’s one of the few prescriptions that act as both prevention and therapy.

As founding chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Section on Obesity, Pont is now encouraging AAP to establish a Nature and Child Health group for pediatricians interested in “increasing the amount of time that our patients spend in nature.” He bases this advice on common sense and hard science. “A growing evidence base is now documenting ... what we’ve always known—that we feel better after spending time in nature,” he says. 

Not long ago, it wasn’t easy to support the argument that the natural world can enhance physical, mental and social health and improve cognitive skills. In the early 2000s, when I was researching and writing Last Child in the Woods—a book about the benefits of nature and the problems with what I called nature-deficit disorder—I found only about 60 studies rigorous enough to cite. Then, in 2006, I co-founded the nonprofit Children & Nature Network, which now offers a free online research library with abstracts of more than 1,000 studies.

Ming Kuo was one of the early pioneers in the field. “When I got into this, it was just me and the tumbleweeds,” says Kuo, who heads the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Today, she says, “there’s been a noticeable uptick, maybe even a flood of research.”

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In wide-open Wyoming, kids from Washington, D.C., enjoy a lakeside hike (above) and study wilderness first aid (below) through City Kids Wilderness Project, a D.C.-based program to help children exercise, explore, learn and bond in nature.

Nature proves its point

This growing number of studies suggests that nature connection can ease symptoms of depression and anxiety, help prevent or reduce obesity and myopia and boost the immune system—and those health benefits can lead to improved learning. Critical thinking and creativity are shaped not only by pedagogy but by health as well as environmental, economic and cultural conditions. For children and adults, connecting with the natural world can expand the senses, most importantly the sense of wonder.

In February 2019, Kuo and her colleagues, Michael Barnes and Catherine Jordan at the University of Minnesota, published a systematic review of nature-related education research in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. They conclude that greener schools—ones that, for example, offer a natural space for play and learning, take students on field trips to natural areas and bring nature into the classroom—reduce stress, boost cognitive functioning and may raise standardized test scores and graduation rates. “Report after report—from independent observers as well as participants themselves—indicate shifts in perseverance, problem solving, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork and resilience,” they write. Among the most recent findings:

A first-aid practice activity at Shoal River Falls, Gros Ventre Wilderness WY

• A 2019 study published in Health & Place found that time outdoors increases kids’ chances of experiencing moments of happiness. This study, involving more than 10,000 children using body-worn sensors, suggested that the odds of experiencing what the researchers called “happy moments” were 2.4 times larger in public spaces such as open fields and plazas than in commercial areas like malls.

• Another 2019 study in the same journal found that park prescriptions for low-income families lead to a significant increase in “resilience,” a balanced response to stress. 

• And researchers have found that for young adults, the more nature experienced over a 14-day period, the more life satisfaction they felt daily. In short, time in nature heals. 

Such research has fueled a powerful movement to connect children, families and communities to nature for both health and learning. Though barriers remain, parents, health care professionals and educators are increasingly aware of the benefits—and taking action. 

In the 1990s, for example, many school districts were cutting recess and favoring longer hours of desk-based learning and test taking. But in 2017, Education Week reported the creation of hundreds of new nature-based preschools within the decade. School gardens and natural schoolyards—such as those fostered through the National Wildlife Federation’s Schoolyard Habitats® program—are also gaining ground. And the threat of the coronavirus pandemic added incentive to create learning areas outdoors, where social distancing is easier than in classrooms.

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Intent on the challenge of setting up a tent, middle-school kids from San Jose, California, (above) bond with nature and each other through a program supported by Latino Outdoors, which helps kids experience nature, often for the first time. Three curious kids (below) observe a baby snapping turtle at the Flying Deer Nature Center in East Chatham, New York. Its programs and camps help kids and families immerse themselves in nature.

Building equal access for all

The health and social benefits of nearby nature also have clear implications for conservation and the future of urban development. More than 50 studies point to nature-based play as key to developing pro-environmental behavior because it nurtures an emotional connection to the natural world. Research also suggests that healthy urban ecosystems can lead to more cohesive neighborhoods, reduced aggression, lower crime, better social bonding and less violence. 

That raises the very real question of equitable access to nature for all people. While the human need for nature connection is universal, equal access to nature is not. According to a new report released by the Center for American Progress based on an analysis from Conservation Science Partners, “people of color and low-income communities are more susceptible to developing immunocompromising illnesses such as asthma” because “they are more likely to live in polluted areas without sufficient tree cover and spaces to get outdoors.” 

Children observe a baby snapping turtle while taking part in a program at the Flying Deer Nature Center in East Chatham, NY

The pandemic has underscored these problems. “Far from being an ‘equalizer,’ the pandemic has been an amplifier and magnifier of societal inequities,” says José González, founder of Latino Outdoors. Decisions to close or restrict access to parks, he adds, “will have a disproportionate toll on the communities that need it the most.” In addition, too many parks, from the local to the national, are, as Gonzalez puts it, perceived as “privileged spaces,” where people of color “may not feel welcome or safe.” 

This matters all the more because the health and educational benefits of natural environments appear to be particularly evident among children and communities under the most stress. In 2018, U.K. researchers Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett and Andy Peter Jones published a review of studies involving more than 290 million people of all ages from 20 different countries. Their analysis revealed that exposure to green space was linked to significant reductions in diastolic blood pressure, stress-related salivary cortisol, heart rate and diabetes. In addition, their survey indicated that green space exposure reduces the risk of preterm birth, premature death and high blood pressure—all of which disproportionately affect people of color.

While acknowledging the immense variability in access to safe outdoor spaces, it’s worth asking: How much of a dose of nature do we humans need? One 2019 study, published in Scientific Reports, found that a minimum of 120 minutes a week in parks, woodlands or beaches promotes physical and mental health. This two-hour threshold applied across genders, ages, ethnicities and economics—and also for people with long-term illnesses or disabilities. Ultimately, I’d argue the most useful dose is this: Some is better than none, and more is better than some.

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Free play enlivens kids at the Flying Deer Nature Center in East Chatham, New York. “Through play,” says Program Director Josh Wood, “children learn to navigate the environment, gaining skills, confidence and a sense of well-being.”

Discovering our wild side

Moving beyond nature’s impact on health, researchers are beginning to study the relationship between humans and other animals. As I note in my recent book, Our Wild Calling, little is known about the impact of wild animals on human health or how, through a stronger bond, humans can prevent further destruction of wildlife.

This is the frontier that Lockyer and others are beginning to explore. For more than two decades, she has been helping kids with sensory processing disorder, in which the brain has difficulty processing information that comes in through the senses. Through her practice Rx Outside, Lockyer has come to believe that bird language illustrates how complicated the human auditory processing system is. 

“Bird language may have been the first [other than human] auditory language that our ancestors tuned into,” she says. “Listening to the many vocalizations birds use to describe different things happening in the environment may have helped our ancestors develop their own auditory processing capabilities, which they needed for survival.”

Lockyer also works with a group called 8 Shields, taking people into Northern California forests to learn “deep bird language,” listening to their vocalizations. Participants adopt a “sit spot” where they remain still long enough to truly listen to the sounds of nature—and to themselves.

The bird that Lockyer’s daughter heard turned out to be a California towhee agitated by a gray squirrel that crept close to its nest. By asking what “that guy” was saying, the girl was acknowledging a disturbance, possibly a nearby threat. In the past, such information might have been critical to physical safety, says Lockyer. Today, this form of alertness can help develop our neurological foundations and enhance our sense of being fully alive by making us more aware of our surroundings. “If a sound is not attached to sight or smell or given meaning, it never makes neurological sense,” she says. “We are designed to make sense of our world.” 

This truth can be applied to how we raise our children and care for the Earth. It’s also the core principle of all good research. “Developmentally,” Lockyer says, “the best response to a child who hears the alarm of a bird and asks, ‘What’s he saying?’ is, ‘I don’t know, let’s go find out!’”

NWF at Work

Connecting kids with nature

Give a kid a chance to explore outdoors—and you’ll see that child blossom. The National Wildlife Federation encourages such nature learning through its 9,000 certified Schoolyard Habitats® and 5,500 Eco-Schools USA, serving well over a million kids in the nation’s 25 largest school districts and beyond—by far the largest green-school programming in the United States. The Federation’s Ranger Rick® kids’ magazines, books and online programming teach kids about nature and show how they can make a difference in their own environment. NWF’s Garden for Wildlife™ programs teach young Butterfly Heroes™ how to help monarchs and other pollinators. And the Early Childhood Health Outdoors™ program is creating natural playscapes where kids can both learn and have fun—all gifts to future generations.

Richard Louv has authored several books about nature. His newest is Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives—and Save Theirs. Watch as he and Naturalist David Mizejewski discuss the importance of using outdoor play to nurture an emotional connection to the natural world:

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Teaching Kids to be Nature Smart »
What is a Naturalized Outdoor Learning Environment? »
NWF Book Club: Last Child in the Woods »

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